A Quick COVID-19 Note
First off, apologies are in order. My blogging has been irregular and we have gotten behind with our weekly updates on the “History of East Asian Martial Arts” class being taught by Prof. TJ Hinrichs at Cornell. As I am sure you have guessed, COVID-19 is responsible for this disruption among many other, much more serious, matters. Cornell’s campus was closed two weeks ago and all instruction has been transitioned to an on-line format. Luckily spring break was coming up so the students had time to resettle themselves and the faculty got some breathing space to accommodate the “new normal.”
Other aspects of this disruption have been more personal. Having a compromised respiratory system, I was advised to take the warnings about social distancing very seriously. My wife has a job working with the public in an essential industry, so we decided that I should decamp to a less exposed location in Western NY for the duration of the unpleasantness. That has been a personal adjustment. The good news is that my new location has plenty of space for solo-training. The bad news is that almost all of my books and research material remains in Ithaca. Such is life.
I feel truly bad for the undergrads that I have worked with in HEAMA. The disruptions to their lives and educational plans have been most unfortunate. One small silver lining is that I was able to deliver a guest lecture in the course just hours before plans for closing the campus were announced. Things escalated pretty quickly after that. All of the martial artists whom I have worked with in Central NY were forced to close their classes and training halls within the next few days.
As students of Martial Arts Studies we are now faced with an important opportunity. We must observe and document the ways that these fighting systems deal with what is perhaps the greatest challenge that most of them have faced since the start of WWII. Likewise, those of us who have been following along with this class may be able to glean some additional insight into what what sorts of distance learning strategies are most effective in this sort of situation. It seems that we are all doing on-line study now.
We will be diving into the COVID-19 crisis, and its impact on the world of practicing martial artists, in the coming weeks. But for now its sufficient to note that the work of Martial Arts Studies must continue. We need to document everything that we are seeing and at the same time keep up with our class readings!
- G. Cameron Hurst. 1998. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. Yale UP. p. 177-196.
- Jeff Takacs, “A Case of Contagious Legitimacy: Kinship, Ritual and Manipulation in Chinese Martial Arts Societies,” Modern Asian Studies 4 (2003):885-917.
- Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 83-105.
Notes on the Readings
Where as most weeks have focused on events in either Japan or China, this one is structured thematically examining lineage in a comparative context. Students will discover both similarities and differences within the assigned readings which are critical to understanding the social function of martial arts in these two societies. When reviewing Hurst’s discussion of lineages its also interesting to compare them to other transmission and licensing systems within the Japanese fine arts, such as tea ceremony or flower arranging.
Jeff Takacs’ article (which can now be read for free on J-Store) must be considered the best scholarly treatments of lineage within the Chinese martial arts. His work is particularly important as it emphasizes how lineage claims can be used to legitimize institutional innovation. I particularly like how all of this is framed within a specific ritual context. Undergrads respond very well to this article. It is worth remembering, however, that not all Chinese martial arts associations handle questions of lineage, ritual and discipleship in quite the same way. As such, students may see similar issues play out slightly differently in their own communities.
Finally, the selection from Judkins and Nielson documents the creation of Choy Li Fut and the establishment of the Hung Sing Association in Foshan. This is an interesting selection as it includes lineage myths, historical details of the creation of specific institutions and a sociological analysis of how these structures actually functioned in the lives of students. Once again, we see that the construction of shared religious rites and an artificial kinship system were central to the establishment of a functioning martial arts community.
- What factors led to the historical emergence of martial arts lineages?
- How do principles and practices of kinship translate to martial arts lineages?
- In what ways do lineages shape transmission (learning) of martial arts?
- In what ways do they shape legitimacy of transmission?
- In what ways do the structures of martial arts lineages differ between China and Japan?
My quick take on the role of lineage in the TCMA.
This was a strange week. I delivered a guest lecture to the class on a Tuesday morning. Rumors had been circulating that classes might be canceled for a couple of days (Harvard had already made their announcement) though everything was still proceeding as normal. Later that afternoon we received an email from the university’s President inviting students to pack up their things and not come back after the quickly approaching spring break.
My lecture focused on the social function, evolution and institutional variations of the lineage concept within Southern China’s martial arts. The initial plan had been to post the text of the lecture here. But as I started to type things out I decided that this was not the best idea.
Some of the basic sociological background, such as the expansion of clan lineage networks into the south during the mid-Qing following ritual reforms in the Ming era, will already be familiar to readers who have read my analysis of the work of David Faure. Much of the discussion of “institutional flexibility” was structured around an investigation of the different ways that lineage has been handled in three contemporary Kung Fu communities. Again, readers of Kung Fu Tea will already be aware that some groups see themselves as “traditionalists” on these questions, others as modernists, and almost everyone is free to emphasize certain elements of social organization while discounting others. Lastly, I discussed some of the conversations that I was party to in my own small corner of the Wing Chun world follow the death of my sub-lineage’s Master, Ip Ching. While tragic, such moments of transition are useful as they reveal the logic of social structure.
While placing different groups on a spectrum, ranging from most traditional on the one side to relatively “modern” on the other, might seem like an obvious way of addressing the sorts of institutional variations that we see, I became worried that such classifications might be read hierarchically. One of the reasons that some groups adhere tightly to tradition, whether genuinely ancient or invented five years ago, is to advertise the supposed authenticity, and hence legitimacy, of their their teachings. Of course there are a number of other, more constructive, social purposes that lineage fulfills as well. But the more I thought about it the less interested I became in starting a discussion that could be misconstrued as a critique of the legitimacy of anyone’s practice based on how they handled questions of lineage.
Perhaps I will go over that essay a few more times before releasing a different version of it at some point in the future. In the mean time, let me give you a quick summery of the conclusions that I wanted the class to absorb. I think these points are important to bear in mind as we approach the readings for this week.
First, while ancestor veneration is about as ancient as any practice that one can identify within Chinese culture, it has taken vastly different forms in various times and places. As such, how lineage is constructed and understood, and whether it is even seen as being essential to something like martial arts, has differed greatly from one era to the next. We cannot take the development of lineage systems for granted. It is actually quite important to understand why they play no part in a Yuan/early-Ming era novel like Water Margin, but by the time you get to the end of Qing it is literally impossible to imagine a Wuxia story that does not rely quite heavily on the concept of lineage.
Second, the adoption of lineage within the Chinese martial arts was not a one-time, static, thing. Various groups (medical professionals, peasant members of clan associations, actors, religious individuals, commercial guild members) all came to the martial arts with their own understanding of lineage. Far from being a purely conservative notion, lineage claims can become highly creative discourses used to justify and legitimize all sorts of innovations in social organization or practice.
Lastly, while we all have a tendency to fixate on the “revered ancestor” at the top of a lineage chart, we need to remember that these claims are constructed by individuals in the here and now to serve some function within communities that currently exist. When viewed in this way it becomes quite interesting to note the small (or sometimes large) variations in the ways that lineage and ritual are handled from one Kung Fu school to the next. It is all too easy to lose track of a valuable source of data if we simply assume that everything we observe is emblematic of “the ancient rites.” This becomes tricky as conveying an image of timeless continuity is the basic function of any sort of lineage discourse or public ritual. Nevertheless, we must find ways to understand the functions that these mythologies serve without either accepting them uncritically or dismissing them as mere delusion.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: “Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An economic approach to understanding “lost lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.